By Elmira Akhmetova
The world is horrified by a tragic mass shooting again. This time, it took the lives of at least 49 people and wounded another 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June 2016. This tragedy is considered to be the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in United States history and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people. The murderer was identified as 29 years old Omar Mateen, a U.S citizen born to Afghan immigrant parents. Pundits and social media jumped into hasty conclusions, describing the religion of Islam to be the sole explanation of Mateen’s hatred against LGBT people. Very soon, Mateen’s “potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations”[i] and his declaration of allegiance to DAESH were revealed to public. My brief observation of media coverage of the tragedy can be summarized in four points.
Firstly, Noor Zahi Salman, the ex-wife of Mateen, described him as a “violent, mentally unstable person beating her repeatedly when they were married.”[ii] In fact, the world has witnessed such cases of brutality and mass murder conducted by violent or mentally disturbed individuals before. On 17 June 2015, for example, a mass shooting at the Charleston Church in the U.S. left nine people dead. This massacre, committed by Dylann Roof, who believed in white supremacy, has been ruled as a hate crime. On 22 July 2011, a Norwegian criminal, Anders Breivik, slaughtered 77 people and called it a “crusade against multiculturalism and Islam.” Breivik was diagnosed by the court-appointed forensic psychiatrists as having paranoid schizophrenia and narcissistic personality disorder[iii] although a visibly healthy Breivik demonstrated his commitment to Nazi ideology in his court appearance. Neither of them was labelled as a ‘Christian terrorist’ or, at least, an ‘atheist terrorist’. In the case of Omar Mateen, it was a matter of hours on Sunday before local authorities and national politicians began labelling him an ‘Islamic terrorist’ even before the report that he had pledged allegiance to DAESH during the attack had appeared. The media coverage of this massacre once again reveals the continuation of subtle biases in the language that public officials and media use to define terror and who is eligible to perpetrate it.[iv]
Secondly, the supposed iron link between terrorism and Islam is still used by mass media and some politicians shrewdly. On 13 June 2016, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called on President Barack Obama to resign because he refused to equate terrorism with Islam and “disgracefully refused to even say the words ‘radical Islam.’”[v] Such kind of hatred speeches alleging Islam’s links with terrorism demonize the Muslim population of the U.S. in particular and the entire Muslim world in general. It is worth mentioning here that, according to the FBI reports, 94 percent of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 1980 were carried out by non-Muslims. Most mass shootings were not carried out by Muslims.[vi] At the same time, no one can deny that there are thousands of successful Muslim women and men in America, who significantly contribute to the development, wellbeing and success of the country.
Thirdly, the pundits and investigators are largely inclined to focus on Mateen’s Afghan ethnic background while the fact that he is a product of American educational system and social interactions is barely addressed. Omar Mateen was born in New York to an Afghan immigrant parents. He held two degrees in science from Indian River State College, which he received in 2006 and 2007. After his graduation, he worked for seven months as a prison guard for the Florida Department of Corrections, leaving the position for an “administrative matter unrelated to misconduct.” Since 2007, Mateen had worked as a licensed security officer for G4S, one of Florida’s largest private security companies.[vii] Although FBI Director James Comey suggests that Mateen had “strong indications of radicalization” and “potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations,”[viii] yet no direct ties of him with DAESH or any other terrorist organizations have been clearly established to date. Most probably, he was ‘self-radicalized’. But what were the main reasons for his radicalization? Why did he grow up in the U.S. as a mentally disturbed and brutal person as had been described by his ex-wife? Had he been accepted by American society as its full member? Are there any cases exposing that he had repeatedly been discriminated in his society due to his ethnic and religious backgrounds? Lastly, why did this young man answer to an inspiration coming from foreign terrorist organizations as claimed by James Comey, while the rest of American Muslims do not? These questions need to be answered. But one thing is definite- the Orlando tragedy did not happen due to Mateen’s faith, Islam.
The timing of Orlando massacre is significant: Islamic values received huge world-wide publicity following the death of legendary hero Muhammad Ali. This didn’t seem to go well with some elements. So this massacre “neutralized” the positive image of Islam. Mateen is reported to have been known to the FBI for his extremist views: he was interviewed twice by the agency. Why wasn’t he under surveillance by the agency? Earlier we were told that the Boston bomber brothers were under FBI’s surveillance and yet they were able to commit the crime. Similarly we are told that in 2008 Mumbay’s Taj Mahal hotel attack some terrorists came from Pakistan’s Karachi by a merchant boat, got private taxis to reach the hotel and killed the counter terrorism chief of the state who was scheduled next morning to reveal his findings on another terrorist act in the country. The question that arises here is – what role are the security agencies playing. Are they fulfilling their responsibilities to secure the people? Aren’t they being paid by the taxpayers’ money? Investigation reports about most terrorist acts are not generally made public because of “national security interests.” Should we put the so-called national security interests above truth? Don’t the taxpayers have the right to know the truth? The civilized world must come up with convincing answer to these questions if we are really interested in universal values such as human dignity and transparency.
Lastly, such a horrible act of violence, indeed, has never been justified in Islam, which sanctifies human life and confers dignity on all humans regardless of their race, religion, creed, or sexual orientation. Therefore, this crime against humanity should not be used to portray Islam negatively as a monolithic entity, which poses a growing threat to world peace and security. For many centuries, Islam exposed itself as a religion of moderation, committed to establishing a system of truth and justice that shuns laxity on one side, and extremism and radicalism on the other. In fact, terror and violence are universal phenomena that have existed throughout human history, and are not particular to any religious, social or ethnic group. Yet, in recent years, radicalism and violence are expanding, both in the West and East; people are becoming more radical and much brutal, and this needs to be addressed urgently. The media and educational systems, both in the West and East, should be utilized to train the youth to adopt more peaceful and harmonious ways of life. Until the governments will learn to respond to the needs and benefits of their own people, the future of global peace and stability remains bleak.